Sunday, March 22, 2009

Meeting of the National Committee for the IOC

On Friday I had the opportunity to observe the open meeting of the U.S. National Committee for the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. Formally, it is a subcommittee of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, as the IOC is a body within the Natural Science Program of UNESCO.

It was an auspicious day to attend my first meeting of the National Committee. Jane Lubchenco's nomination to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had been unanimously approved by the Senate on Thursday and it was expected that she would be sworn in during the day of the meeting; there was great pleasure among the oceanographers that a well known and respected scientist would be leading NOAA.

The IOC will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its founding during in 20010-11. The participants in the meeting debated how they could schedule events in the United States as part of the observance, and how those events could help educate the scientific community and the public about the IOC and its activities. There was a general agreement that such education is very much needed. (I suggested that an editorial in Science magazine might help.)

Roger Revelle, who was born in 1909, was very much involved in the founding of UNESCO, as he was one of the oceanographers who was deeply involved in the large collaborative studies of the oceans at the time. It was that experience which led him and others to recognize the need for an intergovernmental organization to sponsor such efforts and to enlist the national governments in support of the needed research. Last year there were a set of Revelle Memorial Lectures held in conjunction with the meeting of the Commission. (I was fortunate enough to know Roger, who was a real scientific statesman.)

There are currently 136 member states of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission; the United States has been a member since 1961.

One of the more important matters before the IOC is the appointment of a new Executive Secretary of the Commission, and the National Committee heard a report on the process. From 85 candidates, a dozen have been short listed, and the member nations are to make recommendations on the three to four that each preferrs. It is not surprising that the majority of the short list are U.S. citizens, were educated in the United States, or are now employed in the United States. After all, the United States is a world leader in oceanography. The consensus of the National Committee was that there are several outstanding candidates on the short list!

The IOC plays a significant role in lending its authority to the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) which is an important part of the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS). Not only is understanding of the oceans and the changes that they are undergoing fundamental to understanding climate change and its causes, but that understanding has great scientific and economic importance. IOC also lends its authority to the International Oceanographic Data and Information Exchange (IODE). It is important to understand the economic importance of this science, and I was glad to note that there is a NOAA project on Coastal and Ocean Resource Economics.

I was also able to see a presentation on the IOC Tsunami Project. Recall the outpouring of concern after the tsunami in December 2004 led the IOC to undertake to promote the development of a global system for tsunami alerts. Five years later, that system is well under way providing protection in South East Asia. The small staff in UNESCO that was working to promote and coordinate this program is about to be disbanded as the nations funding that staff through extrabudgetary contributions are ending that support. Yet we heard that there will be other tsunamis in the future, and that they have the potential again to kill hundreds of thousands of people unless the warning system can be made effective and sustained.

Incidentally, there is an editorial piece last week in the Boston Globe calling for the United States to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas.

The United States has 12,500 miles of coastline and 360 major commercial ports. Among the world's largest importers and exporters of goods and services, it has more to gain by ratifying the convention than by avoiding it, especially against the backdrop of global recession.

In the absence of such a legal framework, history is replete with examples of rogue nations unduly restricting maritime access and encroaching upon others' interests, potentially compromising military operations, disrupting commerce, and flouting accountability for environmental degradation.

So far, 156 countries and the European Community have ratified the treaty.
The Reagan administration withdrew the Convention from Congressional consideration leading to a long renegotiation of portions of the treaty. The Bush administration resubmitted the treaty to the Senate, where it still awaits a vote. The authors of the Boston Globe article call for the Obama administration and the current Congress to ratify the Convention. The IOC has responsibilities assisting member nations to implement portions of the Convention.

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